Virgin stem cell bank announced

Sir Richard Branson has announced his latest venture - a stem cell bank which will allow parents to store blood from their child's umbilical cord for possible future medical use.

For a fee of £1,500, the company will take blood from the cord and place it in a cold storage unit at an additional charge of around £100 per year.

Human blood from the umbilical cord is rich in hematopoietic stem cells, which can adapt to replace damaged or diseased cells.

Researchers believe that stem cells could be used in the future to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, although studies into such uses are still at a very early stage.

Sir Richard told the BBC that the service would also enable some of the stem cells to be used by the NHS.

He said: "We will take an individual's cord blood and we will divide it in two.

"So, part of it will go into a national blood centre that anybody can get access to. And the other half will be put aside for the child."

The Virgin initiative is not the first private company to offer stem cell storage, but Sir Richard claims that the charitable aspect of his venture will make it unique in the UK.

A spokesman said that the initiative would "help address the global shortage of matched stem cells available to patients who need life-saving treatments" and "drive further research into regenerative medicine and treatments with stem cells".

The chairman of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Professor Peter Braude, said that cord blood stem cells might fulfil the promise of future disease management "if they can be expanded and grown successfully in large numbers".

"This proposal provides a long-term insurance lottery that may or may not prove to be successful," he commented.

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